On the Blindness of Love

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I witnessed something remarkable every day of my early life. At the time I wasn’t even aware of anything special. Indeed, the miracle only registered after the death of my parents in 2000 and 2001.

My father was “in love” with my mother for the entire time they knew each other. Over 60 years. Every day.

What do I mean by “in love?”

Being in love is like the Christmas morning race down the stairs of young children bursting to burst open their gifts. A smile starting from your heart and warming you down to your toes. The electric thrill of hitting the game winning home run. The embrace  of a departed, estranged old friend who takes the initiative to start over. The first time you taste ice cream. Waking reluctantly from the happiest dream you ever had — and then realizing you are living the dream.

Being in love is not the same thing as loving another. Rather, I’m thinking of a never-ending honeymoon love experience. You construct a mental representation of your darling better than she is: smarter, more beautiful, flawless; high-minded even in the absence of philosophical gifts and principled ideas about morality. You crave her scent, her touch, her gaze. Any wrong she does is reinterpreted, made good, scrubbed clean, or forgotten. You cannot bear to be away from her. Her voice is a balm. She seems to have created another world, one unknown until you met her — brighter, deeper, better, kinder because she is yours.

Your friends do not always understand this, even if they have themselves been in love. In Proust’s Swann’s Way, the title character falls for a faithless woman of dubious history and little intellect, the kind of individual who Woody Allen might say belongs “underneath a pedestal,” not the one Swann erects for her. A friend of Swann remarks:

“I do find it absurd that a man of his intelligence should suffer over a person of that sort, who isn’t even very interesting  — because they say she (Odette) is an idiot,” she added with the wisdom of people who believe a man of sense should be unhappy only over a person who is worth it; which is rather like being surprised that anyone should condescend to suffer from cholera because of so small a creature as the comma bacillus.

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The friends may, indeed, evaluate the beloved more accurately than you do. No matter, you cannot talk anybody out of love once “infected.” I do not mean to diminish the experience by borrowing Proust’s characterization, but only to say the condition does resemble a disease in at least the respects described. The incubation period can be short or long, depending on whether the sweetheart never loves you back or falls out of love first and finds another. And, no matter one’s awareness that such things happen, your pain is not less for the knowledge. Proust again:

At that time, he (Swann) was satisfying a sensual curiosity by experiencing the pleasures of people who live for love. He had believed he could stop there, that he would not be obliged to learn their sorrows: how a small thing Odette’s charm was for him now compared with the astounding terror that extended out from it like a murky halo, the immense anguish of not knowing at every moment what she had been doing, of not possessing her everywhere and always!

We are prone to believing we can imprison and safeguard our heart at the beginning of relationships, our brain keeping the key, until the heart bursts free and puts the brain in the box. Ironic to be taken hostage by a part of yourself even more than by another.

There are, believe it or not, downsides to being in love your whole life. I observed those clearly growing up. My dad could not imagine mom as a less than perfect mother, although she was not up to the job. Even the efforts of my brothers and me to enlighten him found him incredulous. When she inevitably came to dislike his friends or the couples they shared in common, he accepted her right and wisdom in the necessity of ending those relationships. The increasing number of barbs she tossed at him were also dismissed.

My siblings and I did benefit, however, from my father’s delusion. We witnessed a man smitten and devoted. True, he worked outside the home too much for her happiness and ours, still keeping the terror of another “Great Depression” at bay by so doing, but when he was present there was not a second of doubt about dad’s affection and fidelity. Read his Love Letters if you don’t believe me. The idea of a lifelong marriage — of being true to the one you loved — was firmly impressed on the three boys who saw my parents up close.

On balance, the bliss dad received from being in love was greater than any injury he suffered. Even as time transformed my mother into someone less kind and, of course, less physically beautiful, he unconsciously hung the memory of their early days over the reality of her present state. The image sustained him. He was (and considered himself) a lucky man.

We can do worse.

13 thoughts on “On the Blindness of Love

  1. I used to wonder if this kind of devotion could be real. My grandparents seemed to have something like this, but I had such difficult relationships that I thought maybe they were just trying to make it look good.

    Then I met my second husband. He treats me like he’s in love, every single day. He interprets my actions in the gentlest possible light. He knows about my depression and my challenges, but he just gives me credit for trying to get better. I don’t think he is blind, but he sometimes seems to have rose-colored glasses on when it comes to me.

    And I’ll tell you, this has been enormously healing. It makes it easier for me to be kinder to myself, less judgmental. Also, because he is so kind, I want to be kind back to him, which makes him happy and want to make me happy.. it’s an upward spiral.

    Now that I have experienced this type of relationship (it’s been 18 years!), I look back and do believe that my grandparents had this as well. In fact, my husband remind me a little of my grandfather in his integrity, family orientation, and easy-going nature. I feel very lucky.

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  2. Such an interesting piece to read. My father, like your father, was in love with my mother. He told me once as an adult that he never wanted to hear any criticism of her. She could be very unkind to him but he loved her just the same. He understood her and loved her unconditionally. Thanks for your piece. It hit home. Sheila

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    • Thank you, Sheila. I’m still learning this about my parents, seeing them from different vantage points, now 15 years since they’ve been gone. I’m glad the essay resonated for you.

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  3. Thank you so much for this – and despite the clear drawbacks you describe , what a lovely example for your father to set the three boys. I am so very worried about y own boys and their ability yo sustain a relationship in future as the example they are seeing is so far from what I’d like for them. On the very rare occasion my husband and I have a kiss, even just a peck on the cheek, they ask why – it’s a sight they’re so unfamiliar with. …there’s a quote from somewhere (faust?) About a real hell being better than a manufactured heaven, which as a teenager going through bad times, I firmly believe in. However, more recent times, and this post, make me question that….as you say your father was lucky, despite some of that happiness deriving from a way of seeing things that was not entirely reflecting reality. And though you had a good example of love I am pained for you boys. To try and bring something to a parents attention but to have it unacknowledged, sidelined or disbelieved is immensely difficult. Children already feel excluded from their parents relationship but it’s hard to have that bond between them take such obvious precedence when it shuts out the child’s point of view. It’s hard to feel in second place, or lower – though many apologies as now I’m completely speculating and may be way way off the mark…..and of course am speculating based entirely on certain elements of my own experience. …thank you for such a thought provoking post….

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  4. Your speculations are pretty accurate. My childhood, like most, was made up of so many things, some very good, some troubling, some curious, some desperately painful. My perspective on all that, as I’ve suggested above to Sheila, has changed over time. Now these perspectives live quietly side by side, but it wasn’t until I worked them through emotionally that they were able to do so. Glad you enjoyed the post.

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  5. Thanks for the post. Love is a complex affair. That’s about all I can add to the conversation. And I mean love in all its forms: erotic or romantic love, self love, platonic or the love of friends, even the love of non-human elements (art, country, learning – whatever). Being human is a complex affair and love is one big part of that!

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  6. Thanks, JT. Good of you to remind us of that. One can find reasons to live among these many loves, not just those involving a mate.

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  7. Dr. Stein, thanks for sharing your parents’ love story. Stories like theirs are a hopeful reminder that unconditional love between marital partners is possible. I’ve been blessed with the friendship of such a loving couple that has enriched my life.

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  8. Happy to hear this, Rosaliene. As La Quemada and Sheila have indicated, too, we have a few witnesses!

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